After a big year in Finney County with the opening of the Dairy Farmers of America Meadowlark plant and the Garden City transload facility, as well as additions to the housing, health care and retail sectors, the Finney County Economic Development Corporation's annual meeting on Wednesday used an assortment of county growth metrics to demonstrate tangible returns on investment to local officials — and ask for more funding.

Just more than a decade ago, the story of Finney County was one of uncertainty for William Fruth, president of POLICOM Corp., an economic research and consulting firm. In 2005, Fruth wrote a letter to county officials assessing that “the long-term prognosis for your area is not good.”

The letter was sent five years after the Con Agra beef processing plant burned down in 2000, when a fire started on the kill floor Christmas night and virtually demolished an economic staple of the community. Roughly 2,500 manufacturing jobs were lost, according to Fruth’s report.

With that in mind, Fruth said in his written analysis that, “There is every indication Finney County will now join the rest of the rural counties by falling into economic decline. This simply means there will be less money available for everything. Property values will likely decline and more people will have to move away. This is the likely scenario, unless the community decides to stop it from happening.”

The question, he said, is simple: “Do the residents of Finney County have the will and leadership to fight to preserve your community, or [will] you simply do nothing and allow it to fade into the night?”

More than a decade later, Finney County appears to be beating the odds as the FCEDC shared data on Wednesday showing that the county is gradually growing.

In its annual report, the FCDEC billed Garden City as the retail hub of western Kansas, augmented by a growing number of lodging facilities and continued growth in the agricultural sector.

For Finney County’s transient guest tax, 2017 marked an all-time high in collections at $977,231, more than $100,000 over 2016.

Retail sales in Finney County remained about level. In 2017, retail sales generated $773,476,800, about $1.3 million less than in 2016. Since 2009, retail sales peaked in 2015 at $781,241,579, showing that the retail market is leveling off.

Real property valuations have seen systematic increases since around 2012. The value of Finney County’s real property was estimated to be close to $360 million in 2017, reflecting annual year-over-year increases of about 6 to 7 percent over the last four years.

Job growth has gradually increased since 2012, with significant boosts to employment. While about 271 new jobs were created in 2012, roughly 1,283 new jobs were created in 2017, reflecting a steady annual increase of about 200 jobs in year-over-year job creation.

The FCEDC noted in its annual report that there are still growth opportunities in sectors such as distribution and logistics, dairy, food processing, agricultural production, agricultural products, manufacturing, health care expansion, oil and gas production, wind energy, retail, and hospitality and entertainment.

This year stands to see considerable steps forward in the development of new projects. The Sports of the World STAR Bond project is still awaiting final approval from Secretary of Commerce Nick Jordan. There are still no estimates on how long construction would take if the project is approved, but officials have estimated that it would generate $17 million in tourism a year while attracting 150,000 annual visitors to the area.

Meanwhile, demolition has begun in preparation for construction of a new microbrewery downtown. FCEDC President and CEO Lona DuVall said construction could take up to a year. Other projects on the way include a new Domino’s Pizza restaurant and a new housing complex called Prairie View Estates.

DuVall explained that it is the job of the FCEDC to recruit new businesses to Finney County, as well as help existing businesses and industries in their growth and expansion plans as part of a business retention program intended to ensure the addition of high-wage jobs for a skilled workforce.

While the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce is funded largely by member businesses, the FCEDC sources its funding from public entities to avoid conflicts of interest when recruiting new businesses to the area.

This year, the FCEDC has been budgeted $150,000 by Finney County, $130,000 by Garden City, $25,000 by Holcomb and $15,000 by Garden City Community College.

When Fruth sent his bleak assessment to local officials in 2005, he also submitted a funding guideline for economic development efforts known as the Fruth Plan. The local taxing entities agreed to the plan the same year, but funding has hardly, if ever, matched the recommendations, despite results in some sectors that have surpassed targeted projections.

For example, in 2005, Finney County was tasked by the plan to generate 3,700 primary jobs over 20 years. From 2009 to 2016 alone, Finney County generated 3,767 jobs.

Some economic development funding recommendations set forth by Fruth’s plan have not been met due to insufficient funding by the taxing entities. The plan recommended installing annual funding increments of over at least $1 million since 2008, with recommendations for some years, including 2008, far surpassing that amount. By contrast, the FCEDC’s budget has lingered somewhere around $300,000 over the same period.

To rectify that disparity, the FCEDC recommended during Wednesday's meeting that taxing entities examine the possibility of repurposing for economic development needs the .15-cent sales tax dedicated to the creation and maintenance of the HorseThief Reservoir tentatively slated to sunset in 2021. DuVall included in her report the recommendation in 2005 by Fruth to implement a .25-cent sales tax that would yield $1.6 million over the first year and grow gradually thereafter. While the .15-cent tax is less than recommended, gains would still be substantial and put funding over the $1 million mark. While a .25-cent sales tax would yield about $1,686,914 in 2022, the .15-cent repurposed reservoir tax would generate $1,012,148 with incremental annual gains in the following years.

“I think it was time to go back and revisit this and say, ‘Are we doing what we said we were going to do?’” DuVall said.

Repurposing the reservoir tax would still require a public vote, and Garden City Manager Matt Allen advised rephrasing the pitch to focus on results. He noted that money has been spent to stimulate growth factors such as job creation, and proposing that area residents contribute more money to create more jobs would be more enticing than relying on a consultant’s report.

Bob Kreutzer, the FCEDC board’s vice chairman, said the repurposed sales tax would ease the burden on property owners to contribute to future developments by preventing property tax increases without spending more money than they are now.

“That’s where the city and county would have gotten their money,” Kreutzer said. “Here again, we’re quite a ways off, but at least it’s a plan, because as we sit here now and we look at our operating budgets, we’re taking our moneys that we get from our partners, and for the last three years we have gone into savings. This coming year is going to be the last year we can do that.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the FCEDC proposed a .25-cent sales tax hike. Fruth's plan proposed a .25-cent sales tax hike, and the FCEDC proposed repurposing for economic development needs the existing .15-cent Horsethief Reservoir sales tax tentatively slated to sunset in 2021.

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.